Robert A. Heinlein,
Double Star
(Doubleday, 1956; Del Rey, 1986)

While Double Star did win the Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of 1956, I would not call it one of Heinlein's most important works, nor would I rate it as highly as a good number of his other novels. It's a great story, but it strikes me as rather peculiar.

There is not a great deal of science fiction in the book, for one thing. More importantly, although the plot revolves around politics, Double Star is much less political than many of Heinlein's other novels. No great questions are probed very deeply, and one finds oneself entertained more than intellectually stimulated or morally challenged.

Here's the story in a nutshell. Lorenzo Smythe (a.k.a. The Great Lorenzo) is a fairly good actor currently down on his luck. A seemingly chance encounter with a space man lands him a role he never dreamed of playing. At first, he is only told that the job involves impersonating an important person. Two dead men and one dead Martian later, he finds himself rather unhappily bound for Mars, and he soon learns that his assignment, which he has reluctantly agreed to, is to play none other than John Joseph Bonforte, the head of the Expansionist movement, a man loved and hated passionately throughout the solar system. The real Bonforte has been kidnapped just days before an important event. If Bonforte misses that event, in which he will be formally adopted into Mars' most prominent native family, all of the goals of the Expansionist movement may well be doomed to failure.

Smythe gives the performance of his life, but his hopes of returning home are squashed when the real Bonforte is recovered in very bad health. Smythe is asked to continue the charade just a little longer. One thing leads to another, and he finds himself essentially becoming Bonforte, holding the Expansionist party together by his presence and working to make Bonforte's goals a reality. His original self had no interest in politics and had a natural aversion to Martians, but Smythe changes fundamentally as his command performance extends from one encore after another.

Some readers may say that there is too much politics in this book; this is true only insofar as the story is about politics. I really would not call the story political at all. Besides expressing an argument for the equality of all members of the empire, be they Martian, Venusian, Jovian, Terran, etc., the story is relatively free of the types of political and philosophical arguments that typify many of Heinlein's later novels. Those readers uninterested in politics should not pass this novel over out of a fear of politicization. Double Star is a very entertaining story and a fairly quick read. There is nothing earth-shattering or conscience paradigm-shifting about it, and that is the reason I am somewhat surprised that it received the Hugo award. This actually would be a good crossover introduction to Heinlein for readers not interested in science fiction in and of itself.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 21 May 2005

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